TODAY'S TELEVISION

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The Independent Culture
At six o'clock tomorrow evening, Britain's first new terrestrial TV channel for nearly 15 years will start plying its wares on what was once your video channel. In those 15 years we've had satellite TV, cable TV and now the promise of almost unlimited digital TV. It's easy to see that the cares of one new channel in these media-swamped days don't amount to a whole hill of beans.

So, anyhow - what does Channel 5's first evening have in store? The overall pitch seems to be somewhere between ITV and Channel 4, with an opening night washed down with more high-income comedians than you'd find at an advertising awards ceremony. Things kick off fairly obviously with a soap, Family Affairs (Sun C5) - it's a five-nights-a-week deglamorised sudser. Tapes weren't available as this column reached its deadline, but Family Affairs sounds ominously like the BBC's ill-fated Castles in its attempt to get soap out of the fantasy of working-class community life and into the more private realities of ringed-off, suburban existence.

The Independent then makes an early contribution to the fledgling channel in the shape of political columnist David Aaronovitch, whose Two Little Boys (Sun C5) compares the respective childhoods of John Major and Tony Blair - Blair's being the more unfamiliar (Durham, Fettes, etc), but Major's the more entertaining. We even get to meet the man who bought the Major- Ball's old bungalow in Cheam - where Major's mother is immortalised in garden statuary.

Next comes Hospital! (Sun C5), whose exclamation mark tells you plainer than a goldfish in a drip bag that this medical comedy is firmly in the Airplane! mould. The cast of Greg Wise, Bob Peck, Celia Imrie and Haydn Gwynne are suitably dry, but Julian Clary, Martin Clunes, Alexei Sayle and others in cameo roles seems to be over-egging it.

The undoubted jewel in Channel 5's rather wobbly opening-night crown, however, is Beyond Fear (Sun C5), a dramatisation of the true story of estate agent Stephanie Slater who, you might remember, was kidnapped and ransomed by a certain Michael Sams in 1992. Written by Don Shaw and co- produced by Stephen Frears, this is a fine, unsalacious reconstruction of Slater's brave cat-and-mouse encounter with her captor, and Gina McKee gives a convincing portrayal of a normal young woman in an intolerable situation. Former Dr Who Sylvester McCoy is gruffly menacing as Sams.

Highlights on the other channels this weekend include a Performance presentation of Arthur Miller's Broken Glass (Sat BBC2), and a surprisingly funny and well-observed two-part social whimsy called The Missing Postman (Sat & Sun BBC1). This stars James Bolam as the eponymous postie, who, on the day of his enforced early retirement, decides he will hand deliver his last cache of letters rather than just dump them at the sorting office. The trouble is that making off with the Royal Mail like this is a somewhat serious offence, and a police search ensues. Part road movie, part quiet seethe at the dying of the light, Mark Wallington's adaptation of his own novel strikes home more often and more surely than many other, shriller looks at Britain in the 1990s.

Broken Glass isn't vintage Miller, but a rather predictable examination of American indifference to anti-Semitism in the 1930s. Mandy Patinkin plays the doctor called in to treat the sudden paralysis of a Brooklyn housewife (Margot Leicester). Miller light, then, but rather heavy going.

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